Saturday, November 19, 2011

Idaho's sunny slope

The view toward Oregon from Ste. Chapelle.
It's overcast and the morning spat a bit of snow, but we're on Idaho's sunny slope and all's well.

It's a wine-tasting day. In Idaho. With snow in the forecast.

There are more than 40 wineries in Idaho (ranking it 22nd in the country), many of which are southwest of Boise on or near the region referred to locally as the "sunny slope" -- a place where the land begins sloping toward the Snake River. Ste. Chapelle has been here a long time, producing cheap and sweet Idaho reisling. In the last 20 years, however, wineries have been replacing orchards all over the region and Ste. Chapelle has expanded its local grape selection.

The slope tilts southwest and in the summer the sun doesn't set until well into the evening, making for long, hot days, warm evenings and cool nights, thanks to the 2,700-foot elevation and a latitude similar to that of Burgundy in France.

So, over the past couple of decades orchards and cornfields and have been subsumed by chardonnay, merlot and a wide variety of other types of grape varietals.

Having done our research, we start at the delightful Orchard House restaurant southwest of Caldwell and smack in the middle of the sunny slope. It's basically a homey coffee shop that features a lot of the local wines, plus homemade baked goods like pear pie (which I took with me and ate for breakfast the next day). After a lunch of pulled pork (Kathleen) and portabella (me) sandwiches (with tater tots, of course), we plug in the GPS unit (you'll recall her name is Maxine) and head toward Koenig vineyards and distillery. Yes, distillery.

Inside the Orchard House.
In the tasting room we meet the nice young lady who's pouring today and a couple of University of Utah language professors who had to leave the Beehive State to do some serious wine tourism. The night before they'd attended a pour party in downtown Boise and had somehow recovered enough to visit some of the wineries today. The two ladies left with wine, ice wine and vodka, well stocked for the holidays. (We ran into them later that evening at the Red Feather, a famous Boise watering hole that has one of the world's most remarkable beer menus and just enough food to make it work as a dinner stop.)

The stills at Koenig.
Back to Koenig. We try a wide variety of wines (no tasting fee!) and some of the Huckleberry vodka, which comes from the distillery side of the operation. Surprisingly, since Kathleen doesn't like sweet wines, among our purchases are two bottles of the super-sweet ice wine. Kathleen decides there's enough nice flavor in the wine to overcome the brix level of 41. (Ice wine is made from grapes that have been allowed to stay on the vine well past usual harvest time -- until they can be harvested and crushed in their frozen state.)

From there, it's a five-minute drive to Ste. Chapelle, the name that most folks think of when, in a highly unlikely scenario, they think of Idaho wine. Besides sweet reisling, Ste. Chapelle makes a pretty impressive selection of reds and whites, including a blend called Soft Red, which is clearly a red wine for people who don't like red wine. It's not sweet, but it lacks the typical tannins and dryness of most red wines. The very, very talkative woman who served us in the Ste. Chapelle tasting room said Soft Red is Idaho's best-selling wine, which is tragic but probably true. The Ste. Chapelle grounds look more like a traditional winery and vineyard than the other small operations nearby. It generates average, inexpensive wines, but it's worth a visit if you're touring the sunny slope -- the tasting is only five bucks and you keep the glass.

We had intended to make four tasting stops on our tour, but we were way too chatty for that and had time left for just one more after Ste. Chapelle. Arbitrarily we picked Huston, about 10 minutes back toward Nampa. At the address from the web site, we found a home, a gravel drive and a large metal outbuilding. Looking carefully, we spotted a sign indicating Huston's tasting room at the corner of the corrugated building.

Inside, we met owner Gregg Alger, who was pouring. Huston is Idaho's newest winery, selling its wines for about a year. Alger, a former business owner, had sold his business and house in the Boise area some years ago and decided to enter Idaho's burgeoning wine business. And here he was.

The Huston wines -- particularly the Private Reserve Red -- are a higher quality than, say, the recently tasted Ste. Chapelle product. The property is on Chicken Dinner Road, which lends its name to Huston's Chicken Dinner White and Chicken Dinner Red. The Private Reserve Red is a grape bomb -- huge nose, big fruit, bold but not overt. (I don't know what that means, but it sounds like sophisticated wine talk.)

Presently, Gregg's wife, Mary, arrives in the tasting room, and the talk eventually turns to violas and such. At closing time we take our purchases and some dining recommendations back to Boise. The Private Reserve will probably go into the cellar for a year or two.

There are enough tasting rooms on the sunny slope for another couple of visits. How delightful.

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